Sitting in the shadows of the stands at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre, a mass of black, white and red jackets stand out amidst a sea of Thunderbird blue and yellow. Quiet and calm compared to the chaotic snaps of cameras and the bustle of media, university dignitaries, coaches, friends and family, the group has an air of anticipation about them, as if trying to contain their excitement. Who are they? They are a fraction of the 29 UBC athletes heading to Rio de Janeiro to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“This is a record setting contingent, the largest delegation of any Canadian university,” President Santa Ono said. “I daresay, maybe one of the largest delegations in the world. I’m incredibly proud.”
This year, UBC is sending an impressive number of student athletes to the games, alongside another 17 UBC community members that will make up some of the coaching, management and support staff, medical and paramedical teams, and Canadian Olympic Committee members in Rio. What’s more, many are heading to their first ever Olympic games, and the significance of the trip is not lost on those within the T-Bird ranks or among their supporters.
“There is nothing like the Olympic games. Those of you who have been there know that. They are magical,” said Canadian Olympic Committee president, Olympian, and former UBC rower Tricia Smith.
She also paraphrases the founder of the International Olympic Committee: “Pierre de Coubertin spoke about the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle, and the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well, and that is the magic of the games. Every single person there, over 10,000 athletes, every single person in every single sport from almost every country in the world is there to fight well. To be their absolute best in that 17 days.”
Whether you are in the pool, on the field, track, court or water, as Smith said, “Take your story, put it out there on that day, and we’ll be cheering for you.”
Among those heading to the games is UBC alumni and captain of the Canadian women’s swimming team Martha McCabe. Rio will be McCabe’s second Olympics, after she placed fifth in the 200m breaststroke in London four years ago. Last year, the Toronto native earned a silver medal in the same event at the Pan-Am games in her hometown. A 2012 UBC graduate, McCabe solidified her spot on Canada’s team for Rio in early April after placing second at the Canadian Olympic Trials. Just one month later, she was named swim team captain for the games.
A veteran amongst the UBC Rio contingent, McCabe is a proud member of the UBC Athletics family. Speaking in front of fellow swimmers Emily Overholt and Erika Seltenreich-Hodgson, McCabe praised the support network not only in the Thunderbird swim team, but amongst the sports community at the university.
“So many people ask me, ‘How is it possible that you athletes not only hold it together, but excel in those moments where you’re all alone in that spotlight?’ Well, my answer is that we don’t … Approaching your lane before a race and feeling alone can be scary. It’s uncomfortable, it’s stressful, and it definitely doesn’t bode well for a good race. But I can honestly say that never, in all my years swimming at UBC … have I felt alone in the times that it’s mattered most,” McCabe said. “UBC is not just a support system for us, it’s really our family of excellence, and it helps build who were going to be and who we are for the rest of our lives.”
Outside of the pool, another trio to look out for during the games are race walkers Inaki Gomez, Ben Thorne and Evan Dunfee. They make up three-fourths of Canada’s men’s race walking team that competed at the 2016 IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in May. Last year, Thorne won bronze in the 20-kilometres race walk at the IAAF World Championship, while Dunfee currently holds the Canadian record in 50-kilometres race walk and Gomez regained the Canadian record for 20-kilometres. Currently, the three of them are ranked 16th (Dunfee), 7th (Gomez) and 5th (Thorne) in the 20-kilometres race. As a team – adding their fourth member Mathieu Bilodeau into the conversation – the Canadian boys earned silver in the the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome this year.
On the other hand, Olympic first-timers like Taylor Curran are looking forward to their first run at an Olympic gold in Brazil. A fellow Vancouver native, Curran has 105 senior team caps since making his debut in 2009. The 24 year-old competed in his first Commonwealth Games just two years ago, and was a part of the silver medal-winning team in the Pan Am Games just last year in Toronto. He might also be one of the newest UBC graduates on the team, having just earned his Bachelor’s of Applied Science in Civil Engineering, with a minor in Commerce, this past May.
When asked how he’s feeling about the upcoming games, Curran said, “I’m really excited. We just had the announcement a few days ago, so it’s all becoming real pretty quick. But yeah, super excited.”
These, among others, represent a diverse and passionate group of UBC athletes heading to the games in August. From wheelchair rugby to sailing, from coaching staff to Canadian Olympic committee members, the ‘Birds head to Rio with an incredible number of UBC family members alongside them.
“As the 29 and counting of us move from Vancouver to Rio and pour our hearts out at the games, we’ll have our UBC family by our side,” McCabe said. “Sometimes physically, always spiritually, and I think that’s something we can all be proud of.”
As UBC vice-president Louise Cowin said, “When sports fans fix their eyes on Brazil this summer for the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, they will not only see the red and white of the Canadian maple leaf, but also the deep blue of UBC and the blue and gold of the UBC Thunderbirds.”